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Making a Mountain

By June 20, 2011No Comments

Making a Mountain

By Illa Thompson

Published in Independent on Saturday Art column

Charming, effervescent French-born innovator, designer, artist and maker of beautiful things, Xavier Clarisse, is literally making a mountain in his front garden…..

He is creating an essential element of the set for Neil Coppen’s multi-disciplinary dark comedic production which looks at the weight of history, Abnormal Loads, loosely inspired by Coppen’s three month residency in Dundee last year, which will premiere at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Clarrise is creating a Drakensberg mountain range which is beautifully crafted out of pencil cedar ”“ a cubic meter of massive planks was purchased from the Drakensburg  not far from where the story is set.  The wood is fragrant, textured and has a colour palette from deep purple and majestic burgundy to a range of earth colours.   

Clarrise’s brief was for the mountain to be sturdy ”“ as actors perform on it ”“ and it needs to travel to Grahamstown, so it has to fold flat. Clarrise thought that initial variations looked more like “a roof made from slices of bacon,” until he and Coppen settled on the final design which is being brought to life in the garden of Clarrise’s beautiful Glenwood home. The final design came from studying the typography of the area and looking at copious drawings, photographs and paintings of Berg ranges. 

Clarisse was born in Lyon, France and has always loved making and designing things. He studied mechanical theory and technical drawing before attending the prestigious “L’ecole nationale des beaux art” of Saint Etienn. After specialising in sculpture and product design, he travelled extensively as a freelance designer. It was in London that he met and married his wife Suzanne, relocating back to her hometown of Durban five years ago.

His work straddles the worlds of art and design. In recent years, Clarisse has worked in furniture design, sculpture and installations, and has collaborated on various international and sight specific art projects.

He personally creates each project from design to delivery ”“ working with a myriad manufacturing techniques. He feels strongly about making his pieces intensely personal and in so doing does not sub-contract any of the stages of the manufacturing process. 

Clarrise is quite extraordinary. He has a huge respect for tradition and history, and hankers after the fine craftsmanship of yore, while being simultaneously fully conversant in contemporary technology, creating his inspirations and designs on his state-of-the art computer. He is equally at home working with wood, metals, glass or mixed media ”“ and his work is sincerely beautiful. His carefully-crafted practical items: children’s toys, mirrors, shelves, desks and furniture share his trademark clean lines and perfect finishes with his more artistic pieces. There is a sensibility of a Victorian gentleman’s drawing room about his work ”“ little drawers, trim edges, elegant lines and detailed fittings. 

He is also an undercover James Bond junkie ”“ and in another life would be a perfect gadget designer: a contemporary “Q”. He has a fascination with levers, pulleys, mechanisms and keys and his work sometimes reveals surprises ”“ secret draws, hidden keyholes and pieces which fit together like puzzles.

His quirky sense of humour is also evidenced in his work ”“ his range of limited edition “Soul Stools” for example ”“ wooden stools which look like they come from a pixie forest, but are remarkably comfortable. They are individually branded, cattle-ranch style, with a stamp saying where the tree lived and died from which the stool is made.

Demonstrating his astonishing versatility, Clarisse responded to an open call for submissions to create art for the Moses Mabhida Stadium.  Inspired by the national flower, and a much-used national sports emblem – the protea – he made a mixed-media art-work of the King Protea which now hangs in the Presidential Suite at the stadium. He created 24 individually crafted petals made from hard rosewood. The centre piece of the flower is a series of 150 tiny people with their arms intertwined creating a human chain ”“ made from zinc. They centre of the flower is hidden, until the viewer pulls a lever which activates a brass cog-and-pull mechanism to “open” the flower and reveal the beautiful details beneath. 

On you tube there is a short snippet of how this piece was made ”“ which is well worth watching.

He loves Durban ”“ the lifestyle, weather and spaces. Also having a tangible affinity with all things art deco, he loves the strong art deco influences here. “I consider myself a local and I think Durban is fabulous. It is also fine that outsiders criticise Durban, that way we get to keep it all to ourselves!” he smiles…..

For more information / inspiration visit

  Abnormal Loads premieres at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 30. It is scheduled to come to the Playhouse in Durban next April.

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